Key Trends in Special Education in Charter Schools: 2018 Report

by Sandy Shacklady-White

In February 2018 the National Center for Special Education in Charter Schools (NCSECS) published Key Trends in Special Education in Charter Schools: A Secondary Analysis of the Civil Rights Data Collection 2013-2014. The report is a follow up to NCSECS’s 2015 report of the 2011-2012 Civil Rights Data Collection (CRDC), which was a baseline of data regarding the extent to which charter schools serve students with disabilities. For Full 2015 Report click here.

The 2018 report examines the status of students with disabilities in charter schools compared to traditional public schools according to enrollment, service provision, and discipline as well as the prevalence and focus of specialized charter schools. In conducting the respective analyses, NCSECS’s goal is to provide federal and state policy makers as well as practitioners and researchers with a solid foundation for a more productive examination of the issues to drive changes that could discernibly benefit students with disabilities.

The report provides an overview of enrollment of students with disabilities in charter schools and traditional public schools. It also reviews the data on enrollment of students with disabilities in specialized charter schools. A discussion section along with a section detailing federal, state and local level policy recommendations are provided.

Key findings of the analyses:
1. Charter schools are enrolling and serving students with disabilities, but there are differences between traditional public schools and charter schools in terms of the representation of students with disabilities both in terms of proportion and profile. However, over time, the enrollment differences between the two sectors is continuing to decrease. There is notable variability across and within states that should be tracked in the interest of ensuring students with disabilities having equitable access to charter schools
2. The data from the 2013–2014 CRDC confirm that students with disabilities are enrolling in charter schools, but there remains room to improve access nationwide and in particular—in some states and for some students with specific disabilities—where the differences are particularly large. It is worth noting that the most recent data published by the Office for Civil Rights are more than three years old and may not mirror the current reality in charter schools.
3. The analysis related to charter legal status indicates that being part of a district, and thereby sharing responsibility for educating students with disabilities with the larger district, leads to fewer students with disabilities enrolling in charter schools. Students with disabilities may be being referred to existing district specialized programs. While this practice is legal under federal statute and historically how traditional districts have operated, it raises questions about the extent to which students with disabilities are able to access choice on par with their peers without disabilities when charter schools operate as part of a district.
4. The analysis related to enrollment by disability category reveals interesting data related to who is choosing and, conversely, choosing not to enroll in charter schools. When coupled with the data related to inclusion, the fact that charter schools are enrolling students who typically require more significant supports (e.g., students with autism and emotional disturbance) may indicate that charter schools are serving similar students in more inclusive settings than traditional public schools. However, absent additional details related to level of intensity of services and outcomes, it is premature to draw any conclusions.
5. As the charter sector continues to grow and serve not only more students nationally, but a significant or majority proportion of students in public schools in certain cities or regions (e.g., Kansas City, Los Angeles, New Orleans, Newark, and Washington, DC), pressure to address and resolve potential barriers, ensure equal access, and provide quality, and ideally, innovative, supports for diverse learners will continue to mount. In anticipation of this growth, stakeholders leading efforts to grow and support the sector need to address the various challenges autonomous charter schools face (e.g., small size, limited resources, and access to existing special education structures and supports) when working to provide quality instruction and supports to all students.

Access the Full 2018 Report here.

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